SCHIP legislation traces its roots to a children’s health insurance plan in Massachusetts that passed in 1996. Sen. Ted Kennedy met with local officials to discuss the feasibility of a national initiative.  In October 1996 he introduced a bill to provide health care coverage for children of the working poor, to be financed by a cigarette tax increase.

(First Lady Hillary Clinton knew that focus on children would be politically popular and a “Kids First” program had been envisioned as a backup plan during the original 1993 health reform effort.  In his 1997 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton proposed a new kids’ health initiative, with the stated goal of covering up to five million children.)

In March 1997, Kennedy brought Republican Sen. Orin Hatch onto the legislation as a co-sponsor. The bill had to comply with the existing balanced budget agreement between Congress and the White House. It failed to do that and on May 22 the children’s health insurance provision was defeated.

Kennedy did not give up on the measure.  Both Bill and Hillary Clinton argued for including children’s health insurance in subsequent legislation.  A month after its initial defeat, the bill was revived by Kennedy and Hatch.  Organizations from the Children’s Defense Fund to the Girl Scouts lobbied for passage, putting public pressure on Congress.

SCHIP was passed and signed into law by Bill Clinton on August 5, 1997.  Following the signing, Kennedy thanked Hatch, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and the Clintons.

“Mrs. Clinton was of invaluable help, both in the fashioning and the shaping of the program and also as a clear advocate,” said Kennedy.

Over the next decade, SCHIP grew into an immensely popular program in states across the country.  6.6 million children were covered by state SCHIP programs over 2007, although 9 million more children remained uninsured.

The 2007 Reauthorization Battle

SCHIP had become so successful over its first decade that, when the program came up for reauthorization, a bi-partisan coalition in Congress sought to expand it. Four senior senators are chief sponsors of the bill—Democrats Max Baucus of Montana and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah.  Their legislation would have authorized new expenditures of $35 billion over the next five years for a total of $60 billion, enabling states to cover more than three million additional children.

To their consternation, President Bush vetoed it.

Grassley and Hatch implored Bush to change his mind.  In a joint news release, they said it was “disappointing, even a little unbelievable, to hear talk about administration officials wanting a veto of a legislative proposal” that has broad bipartisan support.

SCHIP in 2008

Back in January, 42 House Republicans voted with Democrats to override President Bush’s SCHIP veto – a total still shy of the required two-thirds.

The new political terrain on Capitol Hill became crystal clear in June when the White House threatened to veto the Medicare physician payment legislation.  A stunning 129 House Republicans voted against their President. In the Senate, Ted Kennedy—undergoing treatment for cancer—came to Capitol Hill from his hospital room to lead the fight to get the Medicare bill the votes it needed for passage.

It is obvious from the Medicare vote that there is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for an expansion of SCHIP so that it can help more children.  But will support be high enough to override another veto by President Bush?   Those who voted to reauthorize SCHIP the last time need to be encouraged to stand firm. The wavering “no” votes need to hear from their constituents that it’s time for every member of Congress to stand up for the health of America’s children.